Afghanistan war: Mission not failed 'yet', Biden says as Taliban capture more territory

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Joe Biden has insisted that the American mission in Afghanistan has not failed ‘yet’ even as the Taliban recaptures swathes of territory in the wake of US withdrawal. 

The President conceded that it is unlikely the government in Kabul can retain control over the entirety of the country once all American troops leave by August 31, but said a full Taliban takeover is far from assured. 

It comes as the Taliban continues to make advances across the country, including capturing Islam Qala – the country’s main border post with Iran – on Friday.

The Taliban now claims to be in control of 85 per cent of Afghanistan, though observers put the real figure at something closer to 30 per cent.

Whatever the true figure, the group’s rapid advance has led to increasingly panicked warnings that Afghanistan could soon fall back under their control – or else descend into a civil war that would benefit terror groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS.

With the future of Afghanistan in the balance, the Taliban is keen to appear as a government-in-waiting and has begun making diplomatic overtures to neighbours including China – which a spokesman praised as a ‘friend’ and future ally on Friday.

Meanwhile Afghans have described an acute sense of ‘betrayal’ they feel towards western forces which entered the country on a pledge to help in the fight the extremists only to retreat with the group in the ascendancy.

Shukria Barakzai, Afghan ambassador to Norway, was asked by the BBC whether she feels betrayed by the sudden withdrawal. She replied: ‘In a word, yes.’  

Joe Biden told reporters that the US mission in Afghanistan hasn't failed 'yet' as he spoke about troop withdrawal from the country at the White House last night

Joe Biden told reporters that the US mission in Afghanistan hasn’t failed ‘yet’ as he spoke about troop withdrawal from the country at the White House last night

The Taliban claim to be in control of 85 per cent of Afghanistan, including its main border crossing point with Iran at Islam Qala (left) - though observers say the true figure is 30 per cent

The Taliban claim to be in control of 85 per cent of Afghanistan, including its main border crossing point with Iran at Islam Qala (left) – though observers say the true figure is 30 per cent

Afghanistan’s future now hangs in the balance – with the peace talks stalled and the Taliban rapidly gaining control of rural territories from government forces.

The Islamists have been trumpeting their victories on the battlefield, including – in some cases – striking deals with government troops to disarm and go home.

While the Afghan government concedes it has lost some territory in fighting, in others it insists the retreat is tactical – ceding rural districts that are difficult to defend without US air support to concentrate its forces in regional capitals.

The true test of the Taliban’s strength will come once all foreign forces have withdrawn – with Biden saying that will happen by August 31 – when the group is expected to launch an offensive on the towns and cities.

If the Afghan government can win battles there, then it may force the Taliban back to the negotiating table for some kind of power-sharing deal.

A complete capitulation by government forces in those battles would see the group regain control of the country and undo 20 years of western intervention.

A drawn-out and messy series of attacks and counter-attacks could see the country fracture and descend into civil war that would benefit terrorist groups such as ISIS which thrive in power vacuums.

At the moment, Taliban insurgents control an arc of territory which stretches from the western borders with Iran and Tajikistan across to the eastern border with China.

On Friday they claimed to have captured Islam Qala, the main border crossing with Iran and a key trading route which the group can leverage for cash.

‘All Afghan security forces including the border units are present in the area, and efforts are under way to recapture the site,’ interior ministry spokesman Tareq Arian told AFP.

Members of the Taliban give a press conference in Moscow today, claiming they are in control of 85 per cent of Afghan territory

Members of the Taliban give a press conference in Moscow today, claiming they are in control of 85 per cent of Afghan territory

Taliban negotiator Shahabuddin Delawar also insisted the group is still negotiating a peace deal with the government, though observers doubt this

Taliban negotiator Shahabuddin Delawar also insisted the group is still negotiating a peace deal with the government, though observers doubt this

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the crossing was ‘under our full control’.

Meanwhile Russia said the Taliban controls about two-thirds of the Afghan-Tajik border and urged all sides in Afghanistan to show restraint.

‘We have noted a sharp rise in tension on the Afghan-Tajik border. The Taliban movement quickly occupied a large part of border districts and currently controls about two-thirds of the border,’ Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, adding that Moscow urges all sides to ‘show restraint’.

She said that Moscow is ready to take ‘additional measures’ to ‘prevent aggression’ on its ally Tajikistan and called on all sides to ‘avoid spreading tensions outside of the country.’

Shukria Barakzai, Afghan ambassador to Norway, said she feels betrayed by the withdrawal of western forces

Shukria Barakzai, Afghan ambassador to Norway, said she feels betrayed by the withdrawal of western forces

Capturing such border posts adds legitimacy to the Taliban as potential rulers of the country, bolstered by talks with regional neighbours such as China.

Speaking with the South China Morning Post, spokesman Suhail Shaheen said on Friday that Beijing is a ‘friend’ to the Taliban and that the group looks forward to working together in the future.

Sketching out his vision of their relationship, Shaheen said the Taliban would be willing to help China deal with what it considers to be terror groups operating in its western provinces in return for trade and investment in Afghanistan.

The Taliban hopes that Afghanistan can join the Chinese Belt and Road initiative – sometimes described as the new Silk Road – which already runs through Pakistan.

Such a move would bring billions of dollars of investment into Afghanistan which has relied for years on foreign aid from the US and its allies to function.

In return, China could get its hands on some of the world’s largest untapped reserves of oil, coal, gold, copper and other rare earth materials.

‘We have been to China many times and we have good relations with them,’ Suhail said, referring to cooperation between the two countries in the 1990s.

‘China is a friendly country that we welcome for reconstruction and developing Afghanistan.’

Alongside the negotiations, the Taliban has been keen to break with its past image – insisting it is no longer a fundamentalist organisation and will not revert to the repressive regime of old.

The group also claimed at a press conference in Moscow on Friday that it is in peace talks with the Afghan government. 

Afghanistan's fate now hangs in the balance with the Taliban taking vast swathes of countryside as government forces retreat to cities in anticipation of a major offensive

Afghanistan’s fate now hangs in the balance with the Taliban taking vast swathes of countryside as government forces retreat to cities in anticipation of a major offensive

However, few people with knowledge of the group or is actions within the country are willing to buy it.

Speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday, Christina Lamb – the Sunday Times’ chief foreign correspondent – said ‘nobody’ believes the group.

‘What we’re seeing in areas where they have moved into already have been saying to women ‘don’t leave your houses, you mustn’t go to school, mustn’t go to work.’ 

‘Certainly the Taliban negotiators that I’ve met at these talks have seemed the Taliban of old,’ she said.

Plans for an American withdrawal from Afghanistan were drawn up under President Trump, before Joe Biden recommitted himself to the idea following his election win.

The issue has proved hugely divisive in Washington, with politicians from both Republicans and Democrats both in support and against the idea.

Biden last night insisted that America’s mission in Afghanistan – to kill Osama bin Laden and drive the Taliban from power – was completed many years ago, and that withdrawal is long overdue.  

‘The status quo is not an option,’ Biden said. ‘I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan.’

But he admitted it was ‘highly unlikely’ Kabul would be able to control the entire country.

Biden said the Afghan people alone should determine their future, but he acknowledged the uncertainty about what that would look like.

Asked if a Taliban takeover was inevitable, the president said: ‘No, it is not.’

The Taliban, for their part, welcomed Biden’s statement.

‘Any day or hour that US and foreign troops leave earlier is a positive step,’ spokesman Suhail Shaheen told AFP.

Smoke rises from destroyed fuel tankers at the Islam Qala border crossing with Iran, which the Taliban claimed to have captured on Friday (file image)

Smoke rises from destroyed fuel tankers at the Islam Qala border crossing with Iran, which the Taliban claimed to have captured on Friday (file image)

Afghan commandos have clashed with the insurgents this week in a provincial capital for the first time, with thousands of people fleeing Qala-i-Naw in northwest Badghis province.

President Ashraf Ghani said the government could handle the situation, but admitted difficulties lay ahead.

‘What we are witnessing is one of the most complicated stages of the transition,’ he said in a speech in Kabul.

‘Legitimacy is ours; God is with us.’

The Taliban have been emboldened by the troop withdrawal and, with peace talks with the government deadlocked, appear to be pressing for a full military victory.

Still, on Thursday a member of the negotiating team in Doha insisted the insurgents were seeking a ‘negotiated settlement’.

‘We do not believe in monopoly of power,’ spokesman Shaheen told AFP.

In Moscow, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman said the Taliban controlled about two-thirds of the Afghan-Tajik border as a delegation from the insurgents wound up a visit.

Some ’85 percent of Afghanistan’s territory’ was under the group’s control, said Taliban negotiator Shahabuddin Delawar.

This week more than 1,000 Afghan troops fled into Tajikistan in the face of a Taliban onslaught.

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